Tech leisure pleasure

Any gadget lover will be acutely aware of the problem of multiple remote controls, as they try to change TV channels with the air conditioner handset and zap the DVD player with the CD selector. Guests at the luxurious Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, UAE – which claims to be the world’s most high-tech hotel – have no such problems. Seven separate systems, from TV to lighting are controlled from a single handset.

That is a pleasing enough feature, no doubt contributing to the seven stars that the hotel has been awarded. But the really clever thing about the control is the technology behind the 6,040 square metres of gold and 110,000 square metres of marble that line the walls.

Some of the hotel suites are so large that guests could be forgiven for not knowing where to point the remote control. They need not worry. The Linux-based AMX touch-screen device connects via the hotel’s ubiquitous WiFi network. "Each AMX control is programmed with the room number," says the hotel’s director of IT, Martin Coeshott. "If you really wanted, you could turn your lights out with the room’s AMX anywhere the wireless network reaches." The device also supports voice over IP (VoIP), allowing guests to make Internet phone calls from anywhere in the 250-acre grounds.

The hospitality industry has not always been so welcoming to technology, as anyone who has paid a small fortune for clunky hotel-room Internet access will attest. Now, however, this is starting to change. Newly constructed luxury hotels, such as the $600 to $12,000-a-night Emirates Palace and the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas Resort, which opened in April, are installing IP-based infrastructures which enable them to offer advanced customer services.

As well as putting 4,000 Avaya IP screen phones in its rooms to access hotel information using Citrix applications, Wynn’s in-house casino is using RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking tags in its betting chips and readers at every table to prevent fraud and theft – at a reported cost of $2 million. Other casinos are also investigating the marketing opportunities of keeping wireless tabs on high-rollers.

Back at the Emirates Palace, conferences not gamblers are the main source of revenue, and its facilities are world-leading, with a 22-server, 3.5 terabyte audio-visual (AV) infrastructure designed to cater for high-end broadcast traffic. Video can be transmitted between its 2,000-seat ballroom and 1,200-seat auditorium, and streamed to plasma screens in the rooms and conference areas.

Coeshott says the Emirates Palace is one of the first hotels to bring AV equipment, telephony and IT systems into a single infrastructure, linking them to the same network. "This gives a much broader range of services available to our guests and conference delegates," he says. "For instance, a conference delegate has now the ability to send his presentation to projectors in numerous meeting rooms, plasma screens in rooms, and an Internet webcast simultaneously and in real time."

Emirates Palace’s plethora of gadgets and state-of-the-art infrastructure would be the envy of many CIOs: 1,000km of fibre cable, 15,000 data ports, 525 IP phones, 50 wireless IP phones. But Coeshott insists it was carefully budgeted to meet business requirements. "To achieve the maximum return [on events] we must be able to cater for all requests, and at the same time be able to upsell using the technology and equipment we have available," he says. "Having all the facilities and expertise in house eliminates the need for middlemen, and increases our share of revenue. The biggest return we expect is that in the next few years we won’t have to re-invest in infrastructure."

One consequence of the ubiquity and visibility of technology is that it adds to the pressure for uptime: "It doesn’t help having an advanced touch panel in the room if it doesn’t switch the television on. ‘Continuity of service’ is my motto for the IT department."

This is achieved with three systems monitoring tools: Cisco Works and HP OpenView for network monitoring and fault tracking, and NetIQ for security monitoring and vulnerability testing. An in-house helpdesk tracks the types of complaints and resolution times.

And given the hotel’s clientele, security concerns are paramount. An entire floor of the hotel is reserved for royalty; the hotel has already hosted defence ministers from around the world at an arms trade show. Helping protect their information are: 16 firewalls from different manufacturers; virtual LANs to separate data sources and areas of the hotel; third-party penetration testing; hardware intrusion detection systems; and event monitoring software.

"Configuring and implementing high security through the wireless network has proved very challenging," says Coeshott. Balancing this with easy access for the guests "is hard to manage and can lead to a very complex structure that requires highly technical staff".

Ensuring sufficient signal strength for wireless VoIP – even by the pool – was also difficult and expensive. "The biggest learning curve I have experienced is implementing traditionally ‘non- hospitality’ technology and devices in a hotel environment," says Coeshott. "This has led to being heavily involved in design changes and alternative systems. To be really effective requires early involvement in planning and detailed requirements before choosing vendors and suppliers."

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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